KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The number of confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in Michigan continues to grow, increasing the strain on hospitals and the medical professionals on the front lines.
It's driving up the need for personal protective equipment—something in short supply not just locally, but globally. A team of faculty members in Western Michigan University's Gwen Frostic School of Art is getting creative to help mitigate some of the risk.
"We're just trying to come up with some sort of solution that will protect health care providers who don't have enough protection," says Nicholas Kuder, assistant professor of graphic design.
Kuder is leading the charge locally to design and develop aerosol boxes—acrylic cubes that doctors can place over a patient while performing an intubation. Dr. Lai Hsien-yung, a Taiwanese doctor, invented the device to help medical workers in China who were running out of resources.
"The goal is to prevent infection of medical personnel and increase the amount of time they are able to work before becoming ill themselves," says Patrick Wilson, assistant professor of sculpture, who Kuder recruited to help fabricate a prototype. "Our doctors and medical personnel are more valuable to us than ever. We have to do whatever it takes (to help them)—the sooner, the better."
The WMU team started working after Kuder connected with a sculptor friend in Arkansas who'd been recruited to do similar work for a hospital there.
"I happen to know a lot of doctors and people with the skills to design and fabricate using acrylic, so I just started calling around to friends and asking if it's something they'd be interested in working on. Every single one of them said yes," Kuder says. So far, he’s found collaborators in Alabama, Utah and Illinois who are starting local projects of their own.
"We've all been sharing the feedback we've been getting, sharing ideas and just problem-solving as a group."
Michael Elwell, director of the Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation at WMU, also provided feedback on the local designs. The team then gave the prototype to Dr. Richard Lammers, professor of emergency medicine at WMU Homer Stryker M.D. Schol of Medicine, to test it out in the Simulation Center. The goal, Kuder says, is to come up with a design that's as simple as possible to fabricate, and easy as possible to disinfect between uses.
The team is exploring the possibility of continuing to build the devices in-house or finding a local manufacturer to partner with, depending on demand. Elwell is helping to facilitate local manufacture of the boxes.
A timeline for delivery could develop rapidly once doctors sign off on designs. Kuder would like to make the devices locally and also share the plans as widely as possible so designers across the country can create the aerosol boxes themselves. The team is also hoping to raise money to bolster the effort. Anyone interested in donating should contact Kuder or Wilson.
There's a level of comfort in being able to contribute to a greater cause during uncertain times, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic escalating so quickly.
"I have four children, and I was suddenly teaching from home, so I didn't have a lot of time during the day to think about things. I was kind of binging on the news at night and feeling really hopeless and powerless," Kuder says. "So, getting involved in this does give me a little bit of a sense of being able to help out in some small way."
"I think it's easier to deal with the disruption to normal life if you feel like you can use your abilities here and there," he says. "I don't feel helpless, and I am optimistic about the situation for our local community."
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